Panel Allows Easing of Crack Sentences
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 8:17 PM
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to allow some 19,500 federal prison inmates, most of them black, to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences.
The commission, which sets guidelines for federal prison sentences, decided to make retroactive its recent easing of recommended sentences for crack offenses.
Most of those eligible could receive no more than a two-year cut in their prison terms, but roughly 3,800 inmates could be released from prison within a year after the March 3 effective date of Tuesday's decision. Federal judges will have the final say whether to reduce sentences.
The commissioners said the delay until March would give judges and prison officials time to deal with public safety and other issues.
The commission took note of objections raised by the Bush administration, but said there is no basis to treat convicts sentenced before the guidelines were changed differently from those sentenced after the changes.
The sentencing commission recently changed the guidelines to reduce the disparity in prison time for the two crimes. The new guidelines took effect Nov. 1.
U.S. District Judge William Sessions of Vermont, a commission member, said the vote on retroactivity will have the "most dramatic impact on African-American families." A failure to act "may be taken by some as particularly unjust," Sessions said before the vote.
Four of every five crack defendants is black. Most powder cocaine convictions involve whites.
Even after the change, prison terms for crack cocaine still are two to five times longer on average than sentences for powder cocaine, the result of a 20-year-old decision by Congress to treat crack more harshly. The commission first said in 1995 that there was no evidence to support such disparate treatment.
Relatives of prison inmates filled the meeting room and applauded loudly following the 7-0 vote. But several family members and commissioners called on Congress to overhaul cocaine sentencing laws.
"The debate needs to shift from the Sentencing Commission to Congress," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "That disparity between crack and powder and all of its injustices continues."
Several bills have been introduced to further reduce or eliminate the disparity. The Senate is expected to hold hearings on the legislation next year.